The New England Patriots lost in the AFC Championship game to the Denver Broncos ferocious defense. The Patriots offense was hampered by Denver's crowd noise, which led center Bryan Stork to use a silent snap count, which the Broncos quickly noticed and used to their advantage.
The Broncos defense carried Denver to a Super Bowl victory and left some wondering if the Broncos could plug in anyone at quarterback and still contend in 2016.
I'm here to say "yes, defense is tremendously important in the playoffs," and also "yes, the Patriots are building a great defense."
While the 2015 offense started off on a torrid 2007-level pace, injuries in subsequent weeks to, well, pretty much everyone derailed the production. We can also see how the Patriots offense has changed over the course of head coach Bill Belichick's tenure, and that the unit is clearly either in decline (over the long term), plateauing (over the medium term), or improving (over the short term). (Ed. note: that's a bad statistics joke, Rich)
Even though quarterback Tom Brady is coming off his best season in five years, there are question marks at pretty much every other offensive position that could prove to be too much for Brady to overcome on his own.
What is undeniable is the upswing of the Patriots defense, which is coming off the 4th best season under Belichick, behind just the 2003, 2006, and 2007 units- and tied with the 2004 group. The group has improved each of the past five seasons and should be even better in 2016 with the entire corps expected to return.
Why is the defense so important? Well, here's a team-building strategy: Great offenses can pull a team to the playoffs, but it's the defense that helps the team win in the end.
It makes some sense, too. A good quarterback is the difference between the Lions and the Titans, or the Saints and the Browns. A quarterback can influence the game like no other position and can take an average roster to the playoffs.
But once in the playoffs, every team usually has a good, or at least competent quarterback. So it's the defense that differentiates between the playoff teams.
The numbers support this, too. Football Outsiders notes that the offense is 33% more important than the defense, and my research shows that a good offense has a greater correlation with a team making the playoffs than a good defense (with closer to a 25% increase in value, but I don't factor in special teams like Football Outsiders).
But once a team gets to the playoffs, it's the defense that carries the team to the Super Bowl. I find that a reserve in the numbers take place when looking at teams in the Conference Championship games with defense projecting to be roughly 10% more important than the offense.
Once we get to the Super Bowl, we find that the defense far better correlates with the champion, with nearly double the importance of the offense (65% defense, 35% offense).
The Patriots know that Brady is good enough to drag a high school team to an AFC East title, so the team has been investing in a top flight defense to help when the playoffs start.
The core of the Patriots defense is extremely young, with safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung (will both be 29 years old on September 1st), pass rushers Chandler Jones (26) and Jabaal Sheard (27), defensive tackles Malcom Brown (22) and Dominique Easley (24), linebackers Jamie Collins (26) and Dont'a Hightower (26), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (26) and Logan Ryan (25). All of these players will be on the team for 2016 and are also the primary targets for contract extensions.
Nine of Belichick's ten best defenses have reached the AFC Conference Championship, with 2009 as the only exception.
Brady won't be playing the part of 2015 Peyton Manning anytime soon, but the improvement of the Patriots defense could prove to be more valuable to the team than any remodeling that takes place on offense.